Water surrounded by sand

Stories Aboard the Blue Heron

Learn about the Blue Heron Research Vessel, the amazing crew and researchers who utilize it, the connective power of water, and the mysteries that it holds.

Published05/06/2022 , by Emily Dzieweczynski

On a brisk May morning with swells just low enough for a safe voyage, a team from the Bell and I were welcomed aboard the R/V Blue Heron. We’d made the trek from St. Paul to Duluth—where the Blue Heron is docked—because they were developing an original planetarium production called Minnesota Water Stories. This production is a compilation of stories that illuminate the ways Minnesotans utilize, understand, and connect over one of our most precious natural resources—water. 

There are certainly many stories to be told about water aboard the Blue Heron—which is a massive research vessel used by the Large Lakes Observatory (LLO) at the University of Minnesota Duluth to conduct research on the Great Lakes. As waves crashed and I warded off seasickness, I watched and listened as some of them began to unfold. 

A large blue boat with a sunset in the background

The Blue Heron is the largest university-owned vessel on the Great Lakes. While it was originally built for fishing in 1985, it was purchased by the University of Minnesota in 1997 and converted for research. It can travel at 9 knots—that is, one nautical mile per hour, or roughly 1.15 statute miles per hour—and be out on the lakes for up to 3 weeks before coming back to shore. 

While the Blue Heron is owned by the University of Minnesota, it’s part of the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System and is utilized by researchers throughout the country. Having access to a boat that large can make a huge impact on scientists’ research. For example, Audrey Huff, a PhD student at the LLO, is studying the impact that mussels have on deep regions of lakes. She explained that without a vessel that can reach the distances and depths that the Blue Heron can, she wouldn’t be able to collect the necessary samples for her research. 

A filmmaker holding a camera and wearing a hardhat

Patrick O’Leary, one of the team members helping to produce Minnesota Water Stories

While the vessel is incredible in its own right, I’d argue that the crew and researchers who utilize it are what truly make it special. The Blue Heron comes complete with a crew of creative, problem-solving geniuses. Do you need a camera to sink to the bottom of the lake? They’ll build a giant metal frame on the spot. Did you forget the ultra-specific tool you need back on land? They’ll find an alternative. When you’re 7 days out on the lake, it’s not easy to turn around and grab that one thing you forgot. As a result, the crew and researchers have become extraordinarily apt at solving the problem with the resources they have. 

Two researchers looking through some mud

Audrey Huff and another researcher looking through sediment that was collected from the bottom of the lake

While being out on the vessel is a lot of hard work, it’s also important to enjoy yourself and take care of each other too. During the off-time on a sunny day, the researchers might be found posted up in their hammocks on the deck of the boat. Audrey also added that the best thing, hands-down, about being on the boat is Lisa Sundberg’s cooking—which I can personally attest to. 

Aside from creating delicious meals, Lisa has a lot of responsibilities on the vessel—to say the least. Her official title is Ship Steward and she explained that, while the Ship Captain steers the vessel, the steward pays attention to… everything else. Even in the off-season, she’s busy tending to the vessel as the Outreach Coordinator. In this role, she works to connect the local community to the research that’s happening on the Blue Heron and in the LLO. This work is guided by questions like, “why does this research matter to the community?” or “what do the scientists aboard get excited about?” A lot of people in the area are committed to the health of the lake, so it’s Lisa’s job to explain the importance of the work they’re doing on the Blue Heron and how it benefits the lake.

In the end, the story aboard the Blue Heron is one of mystery. After over a decade on the Great Lakes, Lisa explained that what she’s learned about water is that she knew nothing about it. Audrey even described the scientists’ life as an episode of “How Does This Work?” They’re constantly asking questions about how things connect, why they are the way they are, and peeking into a world of unknowns.

“It’s so mysterious and separate—it feels kind of like exploring space!” Audrey said.

So maybe it’s not so strange that we’re showing Minnesota Water Stories in the planetarium? You can catch Minnesota Water Stories, in the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, screening Wednesday–Friday at 2:30 pm. Find a showtime here or click here to learn more about Minnesota Water Stories.


Funding for this project was provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.

The Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund logo